Valentine Page 2

None of your damned beeswax, she said.

The words were out before she could think about them, how they would make her seem like a little girl instead of the tough young woman she was trying hard to be. Strickland leaned farther out the open window and looked at her real puppy-dog like, his eyes bloodshot and ringed with shadows. She stared directly into them for a few seconds. The blue turned pale then slate, depending on how the light hit his face. They were the color of a marble you fought to keep, or maybe the Gulf of Mexico. But she wouldn’t know the Pacific Ocean from a buffalo wallow, and this was part of the problem, wasn’t it? She had never been anywhere, never seen anything but this town, these people. He might be the start of something good. If they stayed together, he might drive her down to Corpus Christi or Galveston in a few months, and she could see the ocean for herself. So she gave him her name. Gloria.

He laughed and then turned up the radio to prove the coincidence, Patti Smith singing Gloria’s name on the junior college radio station. And here you are, he said, in the flesh. That’s fate, darlin’.

That’s bullshit, darling, she said. They’ve been playing that album every two hours since last fall.

She had been singing it for months, waiting to hear the album, Horses, on the radio and enjoying her mother’s conniptions every time Gloria sang, Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine. When Alma threatened to drag her to mass, Gloria laughed out loud. She hadn’t been to church since she was twelve years old. She made a fist, held it in front of her mouth as if it were a microphone, and sang the line again and again until Alma went into the bathroom and slammed the door.

The Sonic was dead as hell on this Valentine’s night. Nothing and nobody—just the same skinny, jacked-up carhop who came straight from her day job and pretended not to see the same old delinquents pouring Jack Daniel’s into paper cups half full of Dr Pepper; the girl only a couple of grades ahead of Gloria who sat on a barstool behind the counter, flipping switches and repeating orders, her voice blurred by the heavy speakers; and the cook, who occasionally stepped away from the grill and stood outside smoking while he watched cars cruise the drag. And now, a tall, big-shouldered old lady let the bathroom door slam shut behind her, wiped her hands on her pants, and walked briskly toward a truck where an even older man, pole skinny and bald as an egg, sat watching Gloria.

When the woman climbed in beside him, he pointed at the girl, his head bobbing slightly as he spoke. His wife nodded along with him, but when he stuck his head out the window, she grabbed his arm and shook her head. Gloria leaned against the picnic table and snugged her hands in the pocket of her new jacket, glancing back and forth between the couple and the young man, who sat with his arm hanging out the open window, fingers tapping steadily against the side of his truck. Gloria watched the two old buzzards arguing in the truck and when they again looked at her, she pulled one hand from her pocket. Slowly, slowly she uncurled her middle finger and held it in the air. Fuck you, she mouthed, and the horse you rode in on.

She looked again around the Sonic parking lot and shrugged—nothing to lose, everything to gain—and she climbed into the young man’s pickup truck. The cab was warm as a kitchen, with the same faintly ammoniac smell of the industrial cleaners that lingered on her mother’s hands and clothes when she came home from work. Strickland turned up the music and handed her a beer, cracking it open with one large hand while his other curled around the steering wheel. Well, what do you know, he said. Gloria, I think I love you. And she pulled the heavy door closed.

The sun is lingering just above the truck’s wheels when she finally walks away from him. She does not look behind her. If he’s going to wake up and shoot her, she does not want to see it coming. Let the bastard shoot her in the back. Let him also be known as a coward. As for Gloria, she will never again call herself by the name she was given, the name he said again and again, those long hours while she lay there with her face in the dirt. He spoke her name and it flew through the night air, a poison dart that pierced and tore. Gloria. Mocking, mean as a viper. But not anymore. From now on, she will call herself Glory. A small difference, but right now it feels like the world.

Glory makes her way across the oil patch, walking, stumbling, and falling past pumpjacks and mesquite scrub. When she crawls through a hole in the barbed-wire fence and walks into an abandoned drilling site, an awkwardly written sign gazes flat-faced down upon her, warning of poisonous gases and the consequence for trespassing. YOU WILL BE SHOT! When a stray piece of glass or a cactus spine pierces her foot, she watches her blood gather on the tough, impermeable ground and wishes it were water. When a coyote howls and a second answers, she looks around for a weapon and, seeing nothing, grabs hold of a mesquite branch and tears it from the tree. She is surprised by her strength, surprised she is still moving, surprised by the aching dryness in her mouth and throat, and a new pain that began as a small pricking in her rib cage when she first stood up. Now it has moved down to her belly, turned hot and sharp, a steel pipe set too close to a furnace.

When she comes to a set of railroad tracks, she follows them. When she loses her balance, she grabs onto a barbed-wire fence and falls hard into a pile of caliche rocks laid out in a long line. She studies the gravel lodged in the palms of her hands. His skin and blood are under her fingernails, a reminder that she fought hard. Not hard enough, she thinks, as she picks up a small stone and places it under her tongue, like Uncle Victor might, if he were thirsty and wandering through a desert, wondering how far away home was. At one end of the rock pile, a small marker with the words Common Grave is mounted on a steel cross. A second grave lies a few yards away, small and unmarked, the grave of a child or, perhaps, a dog.

Glory stands up and looks behind her. She is closer to the farmhouse than the truck. The wind riffles the air, a finger drawn through the grass, and she notices for the first time how still the morning has been. As if even the buffalo and blue grama grasses, thin and pliant as they are, have been holding their breath. It’s a small wind, scarcely noticeable in a place where the wind is always blowing, and surely too light to carry her voice back to him. If she speaks, he will not hear. Glory Ramírez turns and looks toward the place where she has been. For the first time in hours, she means to say something out loud. She struggles to find some words, but the best she can manage is a small cry. The sound comes forth briefly and pierces the quiet and disappears.

Mary Rose

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